By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
After three months, six court hearings and nearly $30,000 in attorney and nursing home fees, 77-year-old Margie Hill has finally escaped the grip of Harris County and returned to live with her devoted son Marvin Evans.
“I cried so much in that nursing home; I hated it,” Hill says. “I love being home; Marvin takes the best care of me; it's so nice to have all my things around me.”
Late last year, Harris County officials mistakenly deemed Hill abandoned at a local hospital and forcibly made her a ward of the county, then opposed family and friends who came forward to care for her [“Whose Best Interests?” by Todd Spivak, January 25, 2007].
Luckily for Hill, she had the backing of Houston's prominent Liddell family, which formerly employed her as its housekeeper. Patriarch Frank Liddell is a partner at corporate law firm Locke Liddell & Sapp LLP.
If not for her well-connected benefactors, Hill almost certainly would have spent the rest of her life in Lexington Place Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, a dreary and unsafe facility along Houston's North Loop.
County officials sent Hill to Lexington Place and fought hard to keep her there. Doctors later found the care she received at Lexington Place was actually harming her. A diabetic, Hill left the facility with dangerously high blood-sugar levels.
“Her medications were not being managed well,” says Dr. Jeffrey Lee, medical director at The Hampton at Post Oak, a private nursing facility in the Galleria area that housed Hill for a few weeks before she went home. “She was overmedicated for her heart and undermedicated for her diabetes.”
This comes as no surprise since Lexington Place received dozens of citations in the last year for flaunting federal and state standards, including for “not properly caring for residents needing special services,” according to the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services, which oversees the state's private nursing homes.
Hill's case illustrates the vast divide between the way indigent guardianship programs are supposed to work and the way they do. And it raises the question of how often families lose custody of a loved one because they lack the money and know-how to grapple with the county.
“The county looks at these cases very blindly,” says Lise Liddell, who is now Hill's legal guardian. “The system designed to help people is not really helping them.”
At Probate Court One, in the Harris County Civil Justice building in downtown Houston, key decisions are often made behind a closed door. But sometimes the door is left cracked open.
On the morning of January 29, a reporter from the Houston Press spent 45 minutes listening in on a private meeting about Margie Hill held just outside the courtroom before a scheduled hearing. Attendees included Scott Hilsher, assistant attorney for Harris County; Josette LeDoux, Hill's court-appointed guardian ad litem; and Bridget O'Toole Purdie, an attorney for Bracewell & Giuliani LLP retained by the Liddells.
A couple days earlier, the Press had reported that Hill's predicament was caused by “bumbling bureaucrats” who recommended her for the Harris County Guardianship Program without first informing all of her children, as required by state law. County case worker Elizabeth Pena claimed she could not locate Hill's daughter in Louisiana, though Maxine Hill can be readily found simply by calling 4-1-1 directory assistance.
Hilsher and LeDoux discussed the Press story during their private meeting.
“I abhor red tape and I'm not going to manufacture red tape,” Hilsher said. “I am not one of those government people. I hate government bureaucrats and I refuse to be one.”
LeDoux remarked on a specific detail in the Press story, that Evans, an army veteran with physical disabilities, walked three miles a day to visit his mother at Lexington Place. “He could take a bus,” LeDoux said.
Hilsher made clear that Hill should not be allowed to go home: “She is not a candidate to be discharged from a nursing home.”
LeDoux expressed extreme reservations about Evans, though she has never met or spoken to him. “I will never support the fact that Mr. Evans will be responsible for her care,” she said. “I think he has her snowed. She is so softhearted he got her snowed. I question his sincerity.”
For 16 years, Hill and Evans have shared a cozy walk-up apartment just west of the Heights. Evans, who has worked as a mental health technician, single-handedly nursed his mother back to health after her stroke in 1999.
“The people at the county are a bunch of fools,” Evans says. “They go on assumptions that are all wrong.”
LeDoux, who received $125 an hour in taxpayer money to work on the Hill case, submitted an 11-page report to county probate court Judge Russell Austin at the January 29 hearing, explaining why Hill should remain a ward of the county.
In the report, LeDoux chastised the Liddells for giving Hill “false hope” by making assurances that she would one day return home. LeDoux also repeatedly impugned Lise Liddell's “sincerity” in her efforts to become Hill's guardian.
LeDoux was unimpressed that Lise Liddell had visited Hill at the nursing home nearly every day, attended all court hearings and padded Evans's bank account with several thousand dollars, just as her family had done for many years.